by Michael Hudson
This paper is based on research done as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Babylonian economic history, and was originally published by the Henry George School of Social Science (New York City). ©1993 Michael Hudson, Ph.D.
II. THE SEVENTH- AND SIXTH-CENTURY DEBT CRISES, AND THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE
III.CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES IN THE MODERN AGE
II. THE SEVENTH – AND SIXTH-CENTURY DEBT CRISES, AND THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE
During the Dark Age 1200-750 BC, invaders or leaders of domestic upheavals parcelled out the land among their own ranks and forced indigenous peoples to work it. Populations were divided into citizens and non-citizens, free and unfree. (The most notorious example is Sparta with its helots.) The major direction of mobility was downward, mainly as a result of debt and insolvency. Citizens became aliens, even to the point of being sold abroad as debt-bondsmen by the seventh century BC.
In Babylonia, the vanquisher of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC), promised in the prologue to his laws to rectify a state of affairs in which people “`devoured one another like dogs, the strong robbed the weak,’ judges accepted bribes and did not defend the poor, those in authority treated cripples and widows badly, money lenders lent money at high rates of interest, and many broke into other people’s houses and seized fields which belonged to others” (translated in Lambert 1965. See also theandurarum proclamation of Esharhaddon, 680-669).
In Egypt, interest rates of over 100% on an annualized basis are attested. The pharaoh Bocchoris (Egyptian Bakenranof, 663-609 BC) forbade creditors from seizing debtors, and stipulated that money could be exacted only from their estates. Diodorus (1-79) believes that this act helped influence Solon to do the same in Athens. Certainly popular leaders in many Greek cities overthrew the landed aristocracies, distributed the land to their followers and cancelled the creditor claims which likewise were monopolized by the most economically powerful families. In 657 BC Cypselus seized power in Corinth, exiled the city’s ruling Bacchiads, redistributed their lands and cancelled rural debts. His successors held power until 580. Much the same happened in Sicyon under Cleisthenes, and also in Megara and other cities. The wave culminated in Athens, whose leading families appointed Solon archon (premier) in 594 BC to save the city from social revolution. Solon resolved matters by banning debt-servitude for native Greeks, and redeemed Athenian debt-slaves who had been sold abroad by foreclosing creditors.
The finding of the Deuteronomy scroll during the reign of Josiah in 610 BC
Similar debt tensions were sweeping Jerusalem. In the year 639 the eight-year old Josiah ascended the throne of Judah. He was much under the influence of advisors linked to the social prophets, above all Jeremiah, who was active during 626-586 BC in denouncing usury and kindred social injustices. Matters reached a head in 610, when priests repairing the temple found an ancient law scroll, the basis for Deuteronomy. 2 Kings 22-23 tells how Josiah, now twenty-six years old, became angry upon discovering that “our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.” He called together the elders and convened all the people at the temple, read to them the law and got them to reaffirm its stipulations by acclamation. He then set about removing the pagan priests worshipping Baal, Asherah and other sky-gods and their images.
The Babylonian impact
These reforms were interrupted when Josiah died in 604 BC at Megiddo, fighting against the Egyptian pharaoh Neco, who was making an incursion against Babylonia to support Assyria. A few months later Neco captured Josiah’s son Jehoahaz, held him for ransom, selected another son (Eliakim) to become king, and changed his name to Jehoiakim, in exchange for another ransom. Soon thereafter Babylonia reconquered Judah, and Jehoiakim became a vassal king. He subsequently rebelled, and his son was defeated in 587 when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, looted its temples and palace of their treasures and whatever movable property could be carried back to Babylonia, and also captured the capital’s craftsmen, officers and soldiers (reportedly ten thousand men). The next king, Zedekiah, likewise rebelled and was crushed. This time the Babylonians burned Jerusalem’s palace, temple and houses, and broke down its walls, leaving only the poorest people to work the fields and vineyards.
This was the “captivity” period. It lasted from 586 to 539, ending when Babylon was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus. The Persians were more tolerant toward subject peoples and their religions, seeking to stabilize matters (and the flow of tribute) by permitting many Jews to resettle their homeland. Judah was organized as the “Across the River” province of the Persian empire, which for its pan became largely “Babylonianized,” adopting the centralized administrative practices that Mesopotamian regimes had refined for over two millennia. Babylonians, including Jews, were appointed to leading positions.
The upshot was that for the next 150 years the most successful Jews accommodated themselves to the Babylonians and Persians, becoming familiar with Babylonian traditions. These figured prominently in shaping the final compilation of the Torah/Pentateuch. The pedigree of the Jubilee year and Deuteronomy’s septennial year of release of debt-servants probably can be traced to these times, as is suggested by the long-recognized kinship between Hammurapi’s periodic proclamations of economic order/liberty and his rulings (Laws, §117) freeing bond-servants after they had served three years. Biblical laws and their cosmological imagery, as well as the algebraic numerology of the patriarch list and other pseudo-historical compositions, reflect Babylonian traditions going back to Sumerian times (3500-2000).
Nehemiah’s debt cancellation of 444
Nehemiah linked his debt cancellations and related reforms with Ezra’s religious separatism to make certain that the Jews would not again `fall away” from their past, which was placed in the context of a sacred covenant with Yahweh.
In the mid-fifth century, around the time of the high tide of democracy in Athens, a Jew named Nehemiah rose to the position of cupbearer to Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s autobiography represents the Persian ruler as giving him permission to rebuild Jerusalem (following local attacks, probably by Arabs) as a personal favor, unconnected with any particular policy interest save to re-establish the normal flow of tribute.
The situation Nehemiah found in Judah was much more extreme than had been the case in the Babylonian core itself, where the institution of slavery was dying out. Dandamaev (1984:648) finds that by the sixth century the major slaveowners were the temples and the palace. Individuals found it more remunerative to give their erstwhile slaves their own plots of land and to extort an economic surplus via usury rather than by brute physical coercion.
As for the Persians, they were traditionally free of debt (viz. Herodotus 1.138), and had no desire to see their lands pass into the hands of an alien ruling class notorious for putting its own interests as creditor-landlords above those of the palace. (This habit of wealthy officials taking crops to pay interest on their own financial claims before seeing to those of the palace was a problem from the time of Hammurapi in the Old Babylonian period through the Byzantine empire three thousand years later.) By the time of Persian suzerainty, finds Dandamaev (I990:S14), creditors “could not sell a debtor into slavery to a third person. Usually the debtor paid off the loan by antichresis (free work for the creditor), preserving thereby his freedom. The practices of pledging one’s own person for debt and of selling oneself into slavery had totally disappeared by the Persian period.”
Nehemiah 5:3-5 describes Judah’s residents as having mortgaged their fields, vineyards and houses to buy bread for subsistence, consigned their children to slavery, and were unable to buy back their freedom. In 444 and eleven years later, in 433 (upon bringing many Jews from Babylonia to resettle in Judah), Nehemiah responded with his famous reforms, including those of Deuteronomy and Leviticus not hitherto attested. He relates how, on completing the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls in autumn 444, he found cultivators facing the harvest-time obligation to pay interest to the local gentry and creditors or lose their lands. To block this result – and win favor for himself in the process, at the expense of the landlord-dominated assimilationist party – he remitted all debts and released the lands. This won local support by freeing bondservants who had lost their liberty and land to local headmen and other wealthy families.
Morton Smith (1971:131) finds in these actions a parallel with those of the Greek populist tyrants. Like Solon, Nehemiah “dwelt on the efforts of his party to ransom Judeans sold into slavery; he contrasted this with the local gentry’s practice of selling Judeans for debt; he paused dramatically to hear what his opponents had to say; without pausing too long, he pointed out that they were silent; he denounced their practices, emphasizing their impiety and the disgrace to which they had exposed the Judeans in the eyes of the neighboring peoples; he slipped in the admission that he and his family and staff had also been lending money and grain at interest; and he demanded the abolition of interest and the return of the properties seized. Of course – in front of the crowd – the offenders consented. He made them swear to it on the spot. The consequent increase of his popularity can be imagined.”
Nehemiah further bolstered his standing “by remitting the taxes formerly imposed for the support of the governor and his staff. The expense of his establishment he met out of his own pocket – he must have had large private means. He entertained daily at his table…a hundred and fifty Judeans and lesser officials (but none of the local gentry!) and numerous visitors from abroad” (5.14-17 as summarized in Smith 1971:257. See also Yamauchi 1980).
Nehemiah followed up his acts by expelling an important ally of the assimilationist party, Tobias the Ammonite, who had been given a room in Jerusalem’s temple by the High Priest. Although a layman, Nehemiah ordered that the rooms be purified of the pollution which Tobias’s residence had created. Smith (1971:132f.) finds in this act “the first conspicuous instance of the clash between priestly authority and pious laymen’s traditions of scriptural interpretation. The Maccabees, the Essenes, the Pharisees, the early Christians, and the leaders of the Reformation will spring from this root.” Nehemiah thus struck at the priests’ social position and revenue by removing their control of the temple, replacing them with the Levites, whose administration he financed with a tithe on the land’s produce.
From debt cancellation to religious covenant
The land would be lost not only militarily but spiritually if rulers failed to sponsor economic justice and righteousness. What made Nehemiah, Ezra and other contemporary founders of Jewish religion unique was the way in which they reworked these archaic cosmological traditions to elevate the spirit of social justice to the plane of sacred covenant.
Nehemiah linked his debt cancellations and related reforms with Ezra’s religious separatism to make certain that the Jews would not again “fall away” from their past, which was placed in the context of a sacred covenant with Yahweh. Intermarriage with gentiles and worship of gentile gods were denounced as threatening to dilute Jewish identity. This was linked inextricably with the Biblical laws, which Nehemiah and his fellow anti-assimilationists cast in a new religious context. The Biblical tradition already had become anti-monarchical by the late ninth centu ry, in the epoch of the great social prophets starting with Isaiah and Amos. Rather than leaving proclamations of freedom and order to rulers, the Biblical lawmakers made them automatically periodic as a sacred covenant.
They thus did what no Greek or Italian popular leader did: they brought religion to bear in weaving Clean Slates into the warp and woof of Jewish religion and its idea of righteousness. Abdi-Ashirta had appealed to the have-nots to support him, but (as far as we know) without an explicit plan save for his own personal patronage, it being customary for leaders to reward their supporters. In any event a social program would have been anachronistic in the Late Bronze Age, as it would have been in Egypt under Bocchoris. Certainly most first-millennium debt cancellations, from the neo-Assyrian empire down through Zedekiah during Babylon’s attack on Jerusalem in 586, belong to the sphere of military tactics rather than a political philosophy of equity.
The seventh-century Greek tyrants were expected to exile the old local oligarchies, redistribute their lands and cancel the debts, but this never seems to have become an explicit party program or civic philosophy. The term “tyrant,” coined by opponents of these programs, indicates that these policies never became part of the democratic or any other political ideal. Solon’s poetry is the closest we come to an explicit civic program. Portraying both rich and poor as extremists, he writes that he sought a middle ground. His cancellation of debt servitude was a response to emergency conditions (and indeed, slavery for non-Greeks was maintained).
Looking over the entire first-millennium florescence, one finds the most explicit economic programs in the preachings of the Biblical prophets, from Isaiah c. 800 through Jeremiah c. 586 BC. These speeches may have been filled out by later compilers, but the core of their programs certainly was that the land would be lost not only militarily but spiritually if rulers failed to sponsor economic justice and righteousness – terms which, as Ephraim Speiser has shown, date back to third-millennium Mesopotamia to connote Clean Slates.
It is with these preachings in mind that the Biblical compilers retrojected their populist programs back through all the extant books of the Torah.*The story of Moses was elaborated into a foundation myth, spliced into memories of the hapiru, who were transformed from Mesopotamian refugees into the Biblical Hebrews seceding from Egypt, much as the Roman plebs walked out in the fifth century until they got their way by receiving promises of debt cancellation and other reforms by the patricians who needed their manpower.
This kind of behavior is new to the sixth and fifth centuries. “It was only in relatively late times that Moses was understood as a lawgiver,” concludes Lemche. Furthermore, as Smith (1971:141) has noted (and subsequent Biblical historians have confirmed), “none of this social legislation is known to have been enforced before Nehemiah’s time – a fact which indicates the regard felt for this legal tradition by the ruling class of restored Jerusalem. When action did come, it came from a reformer seeking support against the established aristocra cy.” Smith finds that this “fits exactly the sociological and economic history of the age of the tyrants – the seventh to fifth centuries.”
* Lemche 0985:314f) finds that although Isaiah mentions Egypt a few times, neither he nor Micah refer to the Exodus traditions, nor even to Moses. The main ingredient of the Sinai revelation, where the Lord hands Moses the laws and establishes “the covenant, does not seem to have played any. significant role in the religious life of Israel before the sixth century.” On this ground he attributes the social legislation and the idea of a united Israel to the post-exilic period (pp. 384, 435).
The Greek tyrants also reformed their civic cults, yet certainly Nehemiah and his fellow Jewish reformers achieved something more than the Greekpopulares had done. They placed in an entirely new context the Bronze Age proclamations of order cancelling debts, freeing debt-bondsmen and restoring the land to its cultivator tenants. These became populist social programs elaborated to the plane of religion as a moral guideline. As such, they transcended the calendrical and numerological cosmology that characterized derivative local cults such as those of Baal, Ashereth and other celestial deities.
All religion incorporates sanctification of the law and of the existing or hoped-for social structures. These are represented as having been ordained by the gods “in the beginning.” However, over the millennia these ideas of order had become increasingly authoritarian, dropping the idea of periodic reordering in the Clean Slates found in Bronze Age times as aristocratic families took over most public cults. Greece’s popular tyrants (no better phrase exists) such as Peisistratus and his sons sought to replace the older aristocratic festivals with less aristocratic Homeric and Dionysian ones. In the third century BC, Sparta’s great reformer kings Agis and Cleomenes (followed by Nabis) elaborated the semi-mythical Lycurgus into a lawgiver, much as the post-Exile Jews elevated Moses. As Arnold Toynbee has emphasized, these images of archaic political rulers/lawgivers/religious founders are late reconstructions, retrojected to consolidate a new social order putting the common weal ahead of the oligarchic appropriation of the land and reduction of much of the population to debt-servitude. Still, there was no classical counterpart to the Bronze Age Near Eastern reorderings. Athenian philosophy remained largely aristocratic. No social reformers ever appeared approaching those of Judah. As for Rome, its plebeian platform (such as existed apart from retrojections of the Social War, 133-39 BC) never made significant incursion into the religious sphere. Babylonian New Year coronation ceremonies were incorporated into the Roman military triumph (Versnel 1970) with no trace of the social reordering that had formed the core of these festivals in the Early Bronze Age.
What made Nehemiah, Ezra and other contemporary founders of Jewish religion unique was the way in which they reworked these archaic cosmological traditions to elevate the spirit of social justice to the plane of sacred covenant. This is why Jews and Christians still look back to sixth/fifth-century Judah as the source of their deepest convictions even while crediting Greece and Rome with the secular democratic traditions that have helped make western civilization what it is.
Israelite history was construed as sponsoring a social revolution as a policy of domestic self-preservation. Instead of the debt cancellations being merely a military tactic to win or hold the loyalty of domestic populations, the Biblical authors appealed to a national covenant with the Lord of Justice and Righteousness.
The Biblical laws of economic renewal, contrasted with the market equilibrium transfer of property from debtors to creditors
The laws of Exodus 21-23 (the Book of the Covenant), the Holiness Code of Leviticus and the laws of Deuteronomy place interest-bearing debt, land tenure and the periodic renewal of economic freedom from debt at the center of their economic program. In this respect they retained the central element of Bronze Age royal proclamations: periodic restoration of economic equity by administrative fiat.
Today’s response to economic imbalance is to let the market resolve matters. Bronze Age rulers saw that this would create an adverse new equilibrium, disenfranchising peasant-cultivators and favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, and also strengthening the wealthy against the palace, as antiquity’s aristocratic unseatings of the kings showed. Such a result would have been social suicide for most realms, for it would have undercut the economic basis of the peasant army, leaving the land prone to invasion from without and dissolution from within. Thus, one need not explain Bronze Age “economic order” acts in terms of self-sacrificing altruism, but as a simple matter of survival.
By the end of classical antiquity, aristocracies grew strong enough to block economic renewal. Ever since, societies have relied on “market equilibrium,” counterpoising creditor claims to shrinking debtor abilities to pay. These dynamics determine the particular kind of balance that society would end up with. This balance typically leads to a shift in property ownership patterns, and hence, land use. The shift has been from debtor to creditor ownership, from cultivators growing their own food crops to absentee owners assembling vast estates by “joining field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isaiah 5.8), and shifting the land to export crops, headed by wine and olive oil, produced by servile labor.
For two thousand years such shifts were reversed by royal fiat. It would be superficial to translate the meaning of a complex Bronze Age philosophy into a single modern word, but the essence of what Mesopotamian rulers did was to “proclaim equity,” and “restore order.”
How Hillel’s prosbul yielded power to creditors and mortgage-holders
The fact that Hillel could establish the prosbul waiver as part of Jewish religion showed how far Israel had moved with the same tide of privatization that was sweeping the rest of antiquity into a new Dark Age. (Still, the obedience paid to the Jubilee Year debt forgiveness was strong enough as late as thirteenth-century Spain to inspire Rabbi Maimonedes and Ibn Adret to insist that without the prosbulwaiver, debts among Jews were to be forgiven.
The Near Eastern sanctity of releasing bondservants and land from debt bondage stands in sharp contrast to the Roman principle of making the loss of status permanent. It was the debt obligations that became sacrosanct, not their cancellation. By the time of Christianity, the creditor/landlord class had grown too strong for any popular leader to take on with any hope of worldly success. A shift occurred away from denouncing existing social injustice to millennarianist preaching about the ultimate judgment of souls, taking redemption and social equity as a spiritual metaphor rather than as a worldly political program. This otherworldliness was bolstered by interpretations of the Biblical laws as being of a literary character, a celestial ideal that never could work in practice. The reformer prophets and their social-justice exhortations were played down in favor of Biblical stories taken as a genre of wisdom literature. Indeed, it became positively irreligious to apply sacred moral values to everyday life and political policy-making.
Near Eastern religions maintained the wrappings of the New Year festival and the royal titles of “rulers in justice and righteousness,” but dropped the Clean Slate “order proclamations” so central in Sumerian and Babylonian times. The festival thus was decontextualized, with its formalities surviving in such manifestations as the Roman triumph as noted above, as well as the English coronation ceremony (Raglan 1936), but without proclamations of economic reordering.
By Roman imperial times, Judaism too had become dominated by representatives of the wealthy- the very class against whom the great prophets and reformers had preached from the eighth through fifth centuries BC. Excluded from gaining temple office, advocates of the poor and weak, such as the Essenes and subsequent Christians, formed their own sects, standing apart from the mainstream. The Biblical commandments cancelling agrarian debts and redistributing lands which had been forfeited to absentee holders were superseded by Rabbi Hillel’sprosbul, a legal clause by which borrowers signed away their rights to avail themselves of the Jubilee Year.
Hillel’s prosbul closed a two-thousand-year struggle. Almost as soon as credit became privatized, lenders sought to make themselves immune from the royal proclamations restoring economic order. Since the second millennium, creditors employed various stratagems to hold onto their land by resisting or circumventing debt cancellations. The Danish cuneiformist Niels Lemche (1979:17) cites a document from the upstream town of Mari (ARM 8 33:13f.) dating from early in the eighteenth century BC when the city was ruled by one of Hammurapi’s contemporaries, Zimrilim. It stipulates that “this money shall not be released if a liberation should take place.” This meant “that a loan is not canceled in case an andurarum should be carried out.” Here is a literal anticipation of Hillel’s prosbul formulated to nullify the Jubilee Year debt amnesties.
For many centuries Near Eastern rulers took pains to override such attempts to evade their proclamations. When first-millennium kings began to ally themselves with local aristocracies rather than with the population at large, the Israelites responded by grounding their Jubilee Year in a sacred covenant, thereby making wealthy evaders guilty of something near heresy rather than merely civil lawbreaking. The fact that Hillel could establish the prosbul waiver as part of Jewish religion showed how far Israel had moved with the same tide of privatization that was sweeping the rest of antiquity into a new Dark Age. (Still, the obedience paid to the Jubilee Year debt forgiveness was strong enough as late as thirteenth-century Spain to inspire Rabbi Maimonedes and Ibn Adret to insist that without the prosbul waiver, debts among Jews were to be forgiven. See Neuman 1942:219f. and 295).
Why was the tradition lost?
For one thing, by classical times the public sector no longer was the major creditor. During the first millennium wealthy individuals had taken the place of temples and palaces as the major industrial and financial households. Whereas most debts in third-millennium Mesopotamia represented accruals of obligations to the palace and temples – and increasingly to their collectors – by the first millennium debt represented classical usury: small amounts of money lent to cultivators and other individuals who could not make ends meet. Commercial lending, mainly investment in trade ventures, always was exempt from such restorations of order. Only consumer lending – that is, what economists call unproductive lending (usury) –was wiped off the books.
III. CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES IN THE MODERN AGE
Jesus’ teachings on debt forgiveness
Luke 4:17ff. describes one of Jesus’ first public acts upon his return to Nazareth. Going to the synagogue, he is handed a scroll and unrolls it to the passage in Isaiah 61, where that prophet announces that the Lord has sent him “to proclaim freedom (deror) for the prisoners and … to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus informs his audience that he has come to fulfill that prophecy.
He hardly could have chosen a passage more concerned with the debt burden. Treating debt servitude as a real problem to be solved in itself as well as being an analogue for spiritual bondage, he set about preaching redemption literally as well as figuratively. His Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18) leaves little doubt that the poor should be forgiven their debts. Admonishing Peter to excuse his brother’s sins, Jesus explains that admission to heaven depends on how one conducts his own life in accordance with Lev. 19:18: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” repeated by Jesus near the eve of his crucifixion (Matthew 22:39). It forms the basis for what today is called the Golden Rule, that we should not do unto others what we would not wish them to do to us.
The story Jesus composes to illustrate this principle concerns a king who called his servants together to settle accounts. The first man brought in owed ten thousand talents, but was unable to pay. In accordance with the practice of the time, the master ordered that the insolvent servant, his wife, children “and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him and begged, `Be patient with me and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”‘ But the first servant refused, and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
The other servants told their master what had happened, and he called the first servant back. “`You wicked servant,’ he said, `I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger the master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed.” Jesus warns that “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” As some versions of the Lord’s Prayer put it: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (In many languages the words “debt,” “trespass,” and “sin” are interchangeable, e.g. German Schuld)
Christ’s title of the Redeemer reflects the idea of saving debtors from debt-bondage. If it was their souls that he ultimately was redeeming from worldly shackles, financial power over debtors presented the ultimate test of a creditor’s moral goodness. The moral is that charity toward debtors and other poor calls for forgiving their debts. Lending is put forth as the characteristic test for admission to heaven, for it is the most prevalent mode of exerting either coercive power or generosity with regard to one’s fellow beings. Luke 6:35 cites Jesus’ admonition to “lend, without expecting to be repaid.” Centuries of commentary on this passage by medieval Churchmen elaborated how this exhortation meant that a creditor should not demand to be repaid if the debtor cannot do so without injuring himself
Jesus drove home the conflict he felt to exist between Jewish religious values and the selfish worldliness of creditors in his famous act of overturning the banking tables in Jerusalem’s temple. The story is told in all four gospels (Luke 19, Matthew 21, Mark 11 and John 2). Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus went directly to its temple, where he overturned the benches of the moneychangers and emptied out their moneybags on the floor. He also overturned the tables of merchants selling animals, and made a scourge of cords and “drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen” (John 2:15). Echoing the words of Jeremiah (7:11) some four centuries earlier, he announced that “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it `a den of thieves.”‘ This is the only report in the Scriptures of his using violence, and it inspired the city’s leaders to plot his death.
Jesus’ citation of Jeremiah was deliberately significant, for in this passage the prophet describes the Lord as threatening the Israelites not to make their land and its temples a den of thieves by oppressing aliens, orphans and widows, that is, the most seriously afflicted debtors. To prey on the weak, to monopolize the land and wealth is to seize what belongs to the Lord and his community. The relevant commandment accordingly is the Eighth: Thou shalt not steal. The great absentee landlords were stealing the land and freedom of the Israelites, and thus their destiny. Should the people fail to recall the Lord’s spirit and rectify matters, they would suffer national perdition.
The Eighth Commandment in Canon Law, Lutheranism and Calvinism
Neither Hebrew, Greek nor Latin had separate words to distinguish between “interest” and “usury. ” The distinction is a product of Canon Law seeking to carve out a form of financial gain (interesse) that could be taken by Christians legitimately in the face of the Biblical strictures against neshek (Hebrew), tokos (Greek) and Faenus (Latin).
The thirteenth-century Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas engrafted the teachings of Aristotle on those of the Church. His Summa Theologica (2.2, Questions 77 and 78) deal with trade, just profit, and interest loaned on money. Charging interest is a form of mercantile relationship, whose natural character is to produce mutual advantage for both sides. The proper motivation for one to acquire wealth is to help others. Natural wealth, including the land and its subsoil riches, belongs to mankind as a whole to be used in accordance with its needs (Question 66). As the economic historian Albert Hyma (1951:76) summarizes Aquinas’s argument: “When the need of a certain article is extremely great, especially in case death may be the result of the deprivation, one may either openly or secretly take something from another person. Such action is not of the nature of theft or robbery.”
In 1516 Martin Luther preached a sermon on the Eighth Commandment, classifying usury as a form of theft and warning that it was destroying cities much as a worm destroys an apple from within its core. Jews were forbidden from taking interest from one another (permitted to charge it only to outsiders), but Christians charged it to their own brethren. The papacy itself sponsored the Italian bankers to drain money to Rome. In a similar vein, John Calvin, in the final year of his life, wrote a commentary on Ezekiel (published in 1565), defining fraud and usury as theft. He held that wealthy lenders were as guilty as robbers and highwaymen in breaking the Eighth Commandment (Hyma 1951:283ff., 443ff.).
The relevant passages of Ezekiel 18 are verses 8, 13 and 17 (see Appendix, page 83), in which the Lord commands the people not to lend at interest. The modern Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this sanction anachronistically as referring to “excessive” interest, i.e. to usury over and above the legal rate approved by civil authorities. This perverts the text’s original meaning, for neither Hebrew, Greek not Latin had separate words to distinguish between “interest” and “usury.” That distinction is a product of Canon Law seeking to carve out a form of financial gain (interesse) that could be taken by Christians legitimately in the face of the Biblical strictures against neshek (Hebrew), tokos (Greek) andFaenus (Latin). Like Sumerian mash, these words all refer to the idea of birth, specifically of young animals (goat-kids in Mesopotamia, calves in Greece and Rome). It was on the basis of this etymology that Aristotle pointed out how ironic it was that interest (tokos) was charged on barren meta. In classical antiquity most credit had indeed become parasitic and usurious. There was not yet a rationale for distinguishing some kinds of “breeds of barren metal” from others.
Canon Law was developed largely to rationalize the charges of Lombard bankers sponsored by the papacy to transfer royal tribute in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The effect of Scholastic strictures against usurers preying on the poor was to channel lending via the foreign exchange, where bankers might charge a fee for international money conversion(agio) rather than interest as such. The largest borrowers could readily obtain credit, above all Norman princes and aristocracies outfitting themselves for the Crusades or for war. Charging usury on such lending was the ground on which Dante condemned the papacy’s Florentine war bankers to the deepest circle of hell.
A key premise of Canon Law was important as a theoretical statement, although not yet as a practical guide in these early centuries of finance-capitalism. The Schoolmen endorsed productive commercial loans that provided the borrower with resources to undertake trade on which he could earn sufficient profit to repay the debt with interest and still come out ahead. Only unproductive loans (mainly to the poor, for consumption purposes) were condemned as being usurious. Luther and Calvin said essentially the same. In making this distinction Canon Law and early Protestantism reflected the same policy that had guided Bronze Age rulers when they cancelled agrarian barley debts but not
commercial silver-debts. By contrast, today’s creditors face no obligation to charge interest only on loans made for productive purposes. All the onus of payment rests on the debtor, to the point where entire nations are being sacrificed on the altar of unrepayable debts.
The absence of the Biblical idea of liberation
(deror) from liberation theology
Modern ideologies inevitably shape Biblical scholarship to reflect our epoch’s own economic philosophy. Nowhere has this ideology moved further away from that of Biblical times than in its tolerance of absentee landownership and interest-bearing debt regardless of their polarizing economic consequences. (The third great objective of Biblical Clean Slates, freeing debt-bondsmen, fortunately is no longer around to plague us.)
If there is any one region where social protest against debt and great landed estates (latifundia) logically should be most intense, it is Latin America Yet the continent’s liberation theologists seem to have a blind spot with regard to the Biblical economic laws. The upshot is a “liberation theology” without liberation in the single most important Biblical sense of the term – freedom from the impoverishing consequences of debt (now international as well as personal), and freedom of the earth from absentee appropriation (now by foreign corporations backed by World Bank underdevelopment programs as well as by individual landlords). One looks in vain for a liberation-oriented recognition of the Biblical social revolution in terms of its single leading element – cancellation of the debts that were the major lever leading to the fore-closure of the land and its privatization, removing it from the community’s possession.
The Biblical idea of “freedom and justice” connoted a concrete debt cancellation and the return of the land to its cultivators for their own self-support. For the Biblical authors, alien appropriation of the land was to be ended. The Lord provided the earth for the welfare of all, not just for the wealthy to achieve patronage power over the poor and disinherited. Israel was threatened that foreigners would take possession of its land if it veered from the path of social righteousness. Isaiah (1.7) thundered against Sodom that “Your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you,” and that (1.23) “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.” But today’s churches refrain from condemning the policies that have led to the IMF-World Bank transfer of Latin American resources to foreign creditors.
Hyma (1951:76) has pointed out that in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, the right-wing Father Coughlin echoed Aquinas’s views on the Eighth Commandment in telling his radio audience that “To take something from another person when the latter is unreasonably unwilling to part with it, is not theft.” This idea has been repeated in the most recent (1992) papal catechism. Jean Valjean would not be morally guilty for stealing his piece of bread. How can anyone who believes this not endorse land reform?
Understandably the moral dimension of wealth and credit has become a central focus of religious discussion in times of poverty and spreading bankruptcy. What is remarkable in today’s circumstances is that no similar statement is heard — no calls for debt forgiveness for the bank loans and government credits that have worked only to underdevelop Latin America, and other third world regions, not to put in place the means to repay their debts.
The Cold War and anti-Communism are hardly to be blamed for this silence, for the Levitical laws restoring lands to their occupants were anything but communistic. Just the opposite: They upheld the ideal of subsistence land tenure for all. As Robert North (1954:175) has observed in his study of the Biblical Jubilee Year, “Yahweh’s ownership is verified in Socialism only in the sense that the State must supply deficiencies of self-centered ownership. Common ownership is barely hinted in the Bible; the natural term of family expansion is the privately-owning community. Where Communism decrees `None shall have property,’ Leviticus decrees `None shall lose property; but both are against unhealthy latifundism.“
The political labels of right and left thus have little relevance in today’s debt crisis. The idea of a modern Jubilee debt forgiveness finds discussion mainly among fundamentalists, while “liberation theology” has stripped away the Biblical idea of liberty (deror) in its primary original sense of financial freedom from unpayable debts. Hopes for a papal encyclical on the subject of international debt have not yet been rewarded, nor have those for an initiative on domestic debt and land reform.
A modern Isaiah or Jeremiah would warn that the financial, environmental, economic devastation was a sign from the Lord that the land had veered from the righteous path and that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The recent scourge of disease would be interpreted as a portent. As Billy Graham recently put it, “Okay, God, you’ve got our attention, now what?” If today’s debt and landholding patterns are wrong, they should be restructured, and all political philosophy and religious fervor should aim at achieving this economic freedom. Certainly if Hammurapi and his fellow Babylonian rulers found themselves confronted with this kind of situation, they would proclaim a Clean Slate to restore order in the social cosmos.
The Old Testament prophets would announce that the time has come to restore equity (appropriately at the turn of the Millennium).
Jesus would find in the international and domestic debt burden a moral test of national self-centeredness vs. openheartedness.
Medieval Canon Law would find that most of today’s debts have no counterpart in creating mutual gains between borrower and lender, and thus constitute parasitic usury rather than economically valid loans deserving interest.
Classical economists would draw the same distinction between productive and unproductive loans.
Only in the most recent decades have minds shut to questioning the social, moral and economic consequences of debt. What once was the core of social renewal and religious ethics has now become the Unthinkable. That is the ultimate irony which may strike future social historians looking back on our era.